During his freshman baseball season at Taylor University, Josh DeGraaf was both a pitcher and an infielder, just as he had been at Morris Community High School.
The Trojans used DeGraaf exclusively as a pitcher during his sophomore season in 2013. He did not have a single at-bat. But the results on the mound were sufficient for DeGraaf to be named the Crossroads League Pitcher of the Year.
DeGraaf went 8-2 with a 3.02 ERA and a 47-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 2/3 innings this season for the Trojans. A psychology major, DeGraaf was also named to the Capital One Academic All-American College Division second team.
“It’s exciting,” DeGraaf said. “It was one of those years where everything kind of came together. My team really had my back for most of those games fielding-wise.”
Teammate Ryan Baker had a 2.31 ERA, which was the only one in the Crossroads League lower than DeGraaf’s this season. DeGraaf’s ERA was below 2 for much of the season and was at 2.28 prior to the NAIA National Tournament. He had a 2.27 ERA against Crossroads opponents, which led the league. He tied for the league lead in wins, both within the league and overall.
Even so, DeGraaf says he was “surprised” to be named Pitcher of the Year. He was also a first-team All-Conference selection.
“You know, I didn’t give it much thought,” DeGraaf said. “Personally, I just move from one game to the next and I don’t think about that stuff until the end of the year, until we’re done.”
DeGraaf did not allow more than one earned run in any of his first six appearances of the season. After pitching six scoreless innings March 28 at Bethel, he was 3-1 with a 1.09 ERA. His ERA rose from there, but he won his next four decisions.
“This year might have been a little different just because I was able to focus on pitching,” DeGraaf said. “One year of college baseball goes by pretty fast. The coaching and development is better. ... Our senior pitchers were always around to instill things in me and help me through.”
One aspect of DeGraaf’s game that he says has changed since he was at MCHS is that his velocity is higher. Taylor head coach Kyle Gould says the increase is key to the improved results.
“One thing that happened from his freshman year to his sophomore year is he made great strides in the weight room. He was physically stronger,” Gould said. “He’s become a 90-plus mile-per-hour guy. In spite of all of his success, he remains one of our hardest-working players.”
Taylor went 25-3 in conference play to win the regular-season Crossroads championship by three games over Spring Arbor. The Trojans also went 4-0 to win the conference tournament, defeating Mount Vernon Nazarene 11-10 in the title game.
“I think — and most of my team would say the same thing — that the most exciting thing (from the season) was us winning our conference tournament championship,” DeGraaf said.
“Winning the regular season buys you a berth to the national tournament anyway, but winning that on our own field, when we hadn’t done it a while, was great. We had a pretty young team, and we started a little slow, but once we hit our stride it ended up being a fun year.”
Taylor won its NAIA National Tournament opener over Benedictine-Springfield, 10-2, but bowed out with losses to Tennessee Wesleyan, 12-4, and Benedictine-Springfield, 6-4.
DeGraaf has a cumulative grade-point average of 3.85. He was the only sophomore named a first- or second-team Academic All-American.
“It meant a lot. I know it mean a lot to my parents,” DeGraaf said. “Once you get to college, you realize it’s a little harder to balance academics with everything else. Baseball actually helps you balance. Our coach does a good job of making sure we’re on top of everything and Taylor has a lot of support for that.”
This summer, DeGraaf is playing in the Midwest Collegiate Baseball League and working out regularly. He expects more responsibility during the 2014 season for the Trojans, for whom he is the only player with eligibility remaining that pitched more than 32 innings in 2013.
“Of our four (primary) starters, three were seniors. I will be the lone junior and the oldest one on the team in terms of starting,” DeGraaf said. “It will be a challenge. I will be pitching game ones if I do what I need to do. It’s nerve-racking, but I’m excited for it. I love facing the best in terms of other teams’ pitchers. I love to prove myself every time I go out there.”